The Astros had struggled in Spring Training, recording a 3-16 win-loss record, and then proceeded to lose their first nine games of the 1983 season. Part of the reason for such a slow start is that ace; Nolan Ryan had missed the first three weeks of the season with prostates issues. Ryan’s first start of the season did not occur until the twelfth game. He recorded seven strikeouts in six innings, beating the Expos, 6-3. The team then caught fire, winning six of their next nine games. The stage was now set for Ryan, who remained only eight strikeouts short of the record. Over 32,000 fans showed up at the Astrodome for his April 22nd start against the Philadelphia Phillies. A teammate said Ryan was so nervous before the game; he put his jersey on backwards. He struck out just three batters and took a 6-3 loss. “I tried too hard,” said Ryan. The team then traveled to Montreal where Bob Knepper shut out the Expos, 2-0.
The Astros awoke Wednesday April 27, 1983, out of last place for the first time all season. Nolan Ryan struck out former Astro manager, Brad Mills, who at that time played for the Expos. That strikeout was Ryan’s 3,508th, breaking a 56-year old record held by Walter “Big Train” Johnson. This record had been considered untouchable, just as had Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs. Brad Mills, a utility infielder with only 154 Major League at-bats, said before the game, that there was a buzz in the clubhouse. “We knew he was close to the record and the players were all throwing money into a pool to see who would be the victim of the record-breaking strikeout. There was a lot of money in that pool,” said Mills.
“Tim Blackwell pinch hit before me and made an out. Then it was my turn to pinch hit for Doug Flynn,” said Mills. Skipper, Bill Virdon, had chosen Mills because he had faced Ryan once before in Houston, earlier in the year, and had gotten a hit. “I wasn’t sure where the strikeout number was, because they did not have a countdown on the scoreboard at that time,” said Mills.
The count on Mills went to 0-2 and Ryan threw him a curveball. Mills took it for ball one. “I was hitting left-handed and facing the Houston bench. Then I looked up and saw all their players jumping up off the bench when they thought it was going to be called strike three,” said Mills. “It was then that I knew I was the one. Now I’m thinking, he’s “The Ryan Express” and he’s known for his fastball. He just threw me a curveball and missed with it. He’ll probably throw a fastball now.”
But Ryan did as he had done thousands of times before. He raised his hands over his head, tucked his left knee under his chin, and threw with his simple and fluid motion, leading with his left foot, shifting his weight and releasing the ball with his right arm extended. Ryan threw another curveball and Mills took it, as animated umpire, Bob Engel, called it strike three. The record was now Ryan’s. A total of 19,309 fans at Olympic Stadium rose in unison to applaud Ryan’s accomplishment. After that season, Mills was traded to the Houston Astros. The following year, Mills was coming out of the clubhouse one day during Spring Training and Ryan was sitting on the bench in the dugout, waiting for somebody. They looked at one another and Ryan asked, “It was outside, wasn’t it?” Mills nodded “Yes.”
After Nolan Ryan retired from the Texas Rangers, he flew Brad Mills and his family to Dallas for his retirement party. “That was a classy move,” said Mills. Interestingly, Ryan was born in 1947, the same year that Walter Johnson had died. As we all know, Ryan didn’t stop there, as he continued to extend the strikeout record to an astounding 5,714. That strikeout record, my friends, is more than likely safe. A Special K indeed.
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness" and "Remembered Greatness" are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or email@example.com.